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In American history, the hallowing events in Salem in 1692 were just one chapter in the long story of witch hunts in the country during the 17th century. The hunts were an extension and proof of the Puritans’ strict religious standards and their rejection of any religious practices that were not included in their scriptures. In Salem, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the hunts were seen as efforts to pick out individuals that were suspected or thought to be witches. The suspects were accused of being followers of Satan who employed demons and magic to fulfill harmful intentions. Although the hunts had taken place in different villages in Massachusetts, the trials and conviction of nineteen “witches” to be hanged in Salem stood out for having the biggest records of deaths and persecutions due to witch trials. The trials and executions of the witches of Salem came about as products of religious extremism and mass hysteria among children.
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Religious extremism based on Puritan beliefs and intolerance of anyone suspected of witchcraft was the primary cause of the mass deaths and persecutions in Salem. Similar to other villages in colonies that were predominantly Puritan, Salem was an overly religious society that considered their scriptures to be the truth that everyone should follow (Lombardo, 2020). The Puritans relied on the scriptures not only as a source of direction on how to live religiously but also as the law that would ensure that they did not deviate from their faith. Among the many scriptures that the Puritans referenced were those that mentioned the existence of the devil, dark powers of magic, and witchcraft. The prohibition on any practices related to the three factors mentioned in the Bible required the Puritans to adopt the same beliefs as the rest of society (Zwanzig, 2014). As such, any unexplained happenings in the community were believed to be witchcraft, thus spelling the beginning of the witch hunts that culminated in the deaths and persecution of scores of innocents in Salem.
Additionally, religious fear that was spread by Puritans resulted in the spread of suspicions among the residents of Salem, who accused each other of witchcraft, leading to the trials. The religious intolerance among the Puritans and the over-reliance on the scriptures cultivated false beliefs that Salem was inhabited by evil spirits and witchcraft that were not only in the pagans’ households but also those belonging to the believers (Lombardo, 2020). Consequently, the Puritans believed that there were witches and evil spirits in Salem and therefore started suspecting fellow Puritans and family members. The false suspicions and accusations of witchcraft in Salem convinced the residents that there were evil spirits that needed to be exorcised through hanging (Baker, 2015). As such, most of the people that were hanged in Salem were innocent victims of religious extremism and false accusations based on fear and anxiety.
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The mass hysteria of children in Salem on January 16, 1692, can be considered an additional factor that led to the Salem witch trials. The cause of the hysteria was a result of several girls falling uncontrollably ill and the spreading of gossip that their illnesses had been caused by witches (Ssaha, 2019). The Puritans, who have continually emphasized the need to cast out any form of witchcraft and magic in the village, have caused chaos by encouraging the ousting of the evil in their village. The Puritans claimed that the children had been possessed by evil spirits as a result of witchcraft, hence the need for it to be cast out.
Moreover, the quoting of provocative scriptures by Puritan ministers further increased the hysteria. Puritan ministers’ encouragement and references to provocative scriptures such as Exodus 22:18 led Salem village residents to believe that there was evil in their homes and that witches were the primary causes (Ssaha, 2019). However, although the Puritans were convinced that there was evil in Salem caused by witches, they did not know how to identify them. As such, many of the accused were women who had been wrongly accused by other members of society who had personal vendettas and wanted to settle scores (Baker, 2015). Therefore, although there had been past cases of witch hunting, the hysteria caused by the ill children significantly contributed to the trials and hanging of innocent women.
The Salem witch trials that took place in 1692–93 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony are a reminder of a dark time in American history. In the trials, more than two hundred people were accused of witchcraft, and twenty were executed by Puritans who believed that the scriptures guided them in casting out evil spirits in the village. A review of the events that led to the mass murder of innocent women in Salem shows that the trials were caused by religious extremism perpetuated by Puritans and the mass hysteria caused by the uncontrollably ill children. The spread of rumors and false accusations among Salem’s villagers cultivated the belief that the accused were indeed witches who needed to be executed to keep the village pure. However, the Salem witch trials can be referenced to show the harm that could come to a society that is unguided in seeking the truth and recognizing the freedom of religion among its members.
- Baker, E. W. (2015). A storm of witchcraft: The Salem trials and the American experience. Pivotal Moments in American Hi.
- Lombardo, J. (2020). The Salem witch trials. Cavendish Square Publishing, LLC.
- Ssaha. (2019, December 8). The Salem witch trials: A case of mass hysteria | Real archaeology. Vassar College WordPress | A Digital Publishing Platform for the Vassar Community. https://pages.vassar.edu/realarchaeology/2019/12/08/the-salem-witch-trials-a-case-of-mass-hysteria/
- Zwanzig, C. (2014). The causes of the Salem witchcraft hysteria in 1692/ 93. GRIN Verlag.